A public-art experiment is taking London's art scene by storm. The project? Giving 2,400 people each an hour to do whatever they like in the city's most bustling square.
Twenty-three feet above London's Trafalgar Square, a girl with long blonde hair stands on a platform, dressed as a mermaid. It's 4:30 a.m. on a chilly Tuesday, and the square is still mostly empty aside from a few stragglers. The mermaid holds up a series of cardboard signs promoting a campaign for vegetarianism by the animal rights organization PETA.At 5 a.m., a cherry-picker rises from the square, and she steps onto it. A lady from Yorkshire, less scantily clad, steps out with a wooden frame taller than she is. She spends the next hour gluing brightly colored bits of cellophane onto the frame to create a massive piece of art.An hour later, her time is up, and as the first commuters start to make their way across the square, the cherry-picker makes its trip again. It's sunny now, and the cellophane artist is replaced by a man in his early thirties, who demonstrates fencing moves with a heavy-looking sword.All day and night for 100 days this summer and through October 14, the cherry-picker makes its hourly round trip, each time placing someone new onto the platform in London's busiest square, where they are free to do almost anything they like. This experiment in public art, called One and Other, is the brainchild of sculptor Antony Gormley. Launched on July 6, the project aims to turn everyday people into art, putting them at eye-level with the long-dead generals who look sternly on from their own platforms, at Trafalgar Square's other three corners. And so far, it's a huge hit.Over the course of the project, 2,400 randomly selected volunteers-selected from over 32,000 applicants-will scale what Gormley refers to as "the plinth." Once they're up there, they hula-hoop, play guitar, unfurl banners, release balloons, sing, paint, chat to the crowd-basically doing whatever they like. Inevitably, this means a handful of people have publicly stripped (one was politely asked to dress again by police). For others, this has meant dressing as a ninja to spend an hour knitting in the dead of night. Together, they form a sort of living portrait of a city at a time when the world could use a little more art in its life-and a little perspective.
Antony Gormley made his name with large-scale public artworks: his Angel of the North-a 66-foot steel sculpture modeled on his own body-is possibly Britain's best-known sculpture. His pieces, Another Place and Event Horizon, place eerie, multiple life-size casts of his body along stretches of windswept northern beach, and over 31 London rooftops respectively (Event Horizon was a temporary piece). In its repetition of human forms, One and Other is very much a continuation of his ideas.Even by his standards, though, it's ambitious. Launching the project, Gormley said he was aiming to create a "portrait of the U.K. now" that offers "the chance for you and I to have a look at the world from the point of view of art." (He won't actually perform, however; he hasn't been randomly selected.)Londoners have become addicted to the spectacle, with anywhere from two to 200 passersby gawking at any given time. The project is also streamed live and saved online, where a vocal community of plinth-watchers discuss each person on the site, on Twitter, and on Facebook, coining phrases such as "plichés" (for clichéd plinth behavior) as they go.Part of the project's appeal is the unpredictability of what might unfold. Shortly before 11 p.m. on a Monday night, while a lady on the plinth holds up placards giving thanks for her kidney transplant, a white-haired man named Tom tells me he makes the trip to Trafalgar Square from north London a couple of times a week, just to see what's happening. "I just like it. It's something different, isn't it?"Standing nearby, a talkative, compact man called John looks wistfully up at the plinth and relives his moment of glory to anyone who will listen: The previous Saturday afternoon, he dressed in a Union Jack and threw 200 roses to the crowd in memory of Princess Diana.People get hooked on plinth-watching, even from further afield. Anthony, a neuropsychologist, tells me by e-mail that he hasn't visited the plinth, but, "I try to watch the 2 a.m., 3 a.m., 4 a.m., and 5 a.m. slots online each night," he says, "with a particular affinity for the 5 a.m. dawn slot." He explains that he became a regular viewer after watching one lady, who hummed to the square at 3 a.m. "It was without a doubt the best piece of performance art I have ever seen… I got ‘it'-what Gormley was wanting this to be."So what does Gromley's portrait of the U.K. show? Person by person, it picks out a picture of a nation that's by turns earnest and eccentric, attention-seeking and contemplative. Hundreds of people use their hour to raise money and awareness for good causes, while others take the chance to show the world their singing or juggling, or to spread a little sunshine with bubbles and balloons.
Perhaps inevitably, as the project has gone on, the bar has been raised as people realize that others really are watching. Plinthers from outside London have found they're the talk of their towns, appearing on local news and in the papers. Particular performances have been keenly discussed in letters pages of London papers and on Twitter, while highlights from each week make it onto a weekly TV show about the project. And over time, the banners have gotten bigger, the weird has gotten wackier, and the plinth has become a platform.While at first many got up just to be there, now plinthers aim to be seen. These figures are nothing like Gormley's other sculptures, silent and faceless: They're noisy, whether for a cause or just for the feeling of an hour in the spotlight.One and Other is a product of its age. It takes place both live and online; on the one hand it's intimate-living, breathing and made up of people like you and me-while on the other hand it's curiously anonymous, scrutinized and commented on through the internet, every hour recorded and watched by people from all over the world. It aims to celebrate ordinary people, but gives them an opportunity to show themselves as anything but ordinary.As a contemporary art project, it's been fantastically successful: More than 400,000 people logged onto the site in its first three weeks, while countless more have found themselves stopping to watch as they head through the square.In some ways, it's the perfect public monument to our short-attention–span society: if you're bored or disappointed by a particular performance, not to worry. At the end of each hour of the day and night, the cherry-picker makes its way back up from the square to the edge of the 23-foot platform, a person steps off the plinth, and another steps on, ready to begin their hour as a living work of art.Photos by (in order) flickr users paulsimpson1976, mittfh, and pikerslanefarm. Licensed under Creative Commons.